The “Ah-ha!” Moment
For many educators, the most rewarding experience is watching their students’ faces light up with glee as they make a connection and suddenly understand what’s being taught. Eyes widen with excitement and broad smiles beam on their faces as if to say, “Wow! I get it!”
This is what many educators refer to as the “Ah-ha!” moment, and it is priceless because, in addition to being rewarding for a teacher, it can be a turning point in opening a mind or setting a child on the path to a better life.
Such moments help form the core of the emotional and professional ethos of dedicated teachers in New York City and other urban school systems. Great teachers have hundreds or even thousands of these moments in their careers because they know what works for their students. They know that what happens in the classroom is far more important than school system structure, and they want administrators and policymakers to support them instead of erecting bureaucratic obstacles.
Even so, there is a debate raging among bureaucrats and policymakers about how to improve schools here and across America, and the sad part is that it focuses on everything except what really matters most, namely the teacher-student classroom connection.
Instead, advocates and detractors argue over proposals to implement or extend mayoral control of school systems. They debate the validity of studies of how private and charter schools compare to regular public schools. And some proponents continue to advocate vouchers for private scho
ols that would take scarce tax dollars from already under-funded school systems despite numerous studies showing the public’s preference to increase resources for public schools.
For example, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles recently won a partial victory for mayoral control of the public schools there, and proponents rejoiced as though it will be a panacea for the system’s ills. It’s how one uses mayoral control that counts and, to his credit, Mayor Villaraigosa says he wants to use mayoral control to focus on teacher quality, smaller class size and safe schools, all of which are issues that affect the classroom. He has also started working with unions and parents in a collaborative way, something we have often urged the chancellor and mayor to do here.
And even in New York City, the chancellor and the mayor are launching yet another reorganization of the school system that starts to dismantle the first mayoral reorganization of the system. Principals of “empowerment schools” now have more autonomy to run schools in return for signing performance agreements.
Time will tell whether that structural change will result in improved achievement over the long run. But anyone who has spent time in a classroom will note that real school improvement does not rely on governance change. The key to educating kids is simple to articulate, although hard to implement: Attract and retain qualified teachers, provide them small classes in a safe environment and give them professional latitude, adequate resources and administrative support.
A report released this summer by the College Board noted “The most successful school innovations rest on the time, talent and skill of teachers. These are the people who make everything else possible.” A New York Times editorial about charter schools maintained that until the focus of the debate on education is shifted to teachers, “everything else will amount to little more than tinkering at the margins.”
As this school year starts, we ask the educational policymakers and elected officials who want to improve our schools to shift their attention from governance and concentrate instead on helping the people who dedicate their lives to helping students succeed. Increased support for teachers and a more directed focus on the needs of our classrooms will result in many more of those precious “Ah-ha!” moments that will benefit our children for a lifetime.#
Randi Weingarten is the President of the United Federation of Teachers in NYC.